The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Linda Borchers (Kona)

 

 

Guilt

Chapter One

Johnny Lancer was only vaguely aware of his surroundings. He tried to take a breath but a sharp pain exploded inside his chest. Movement at the moment was not an option. Sensations slowly awakened in his body. He was sprawled, face down in the hot sand. A light wind tugged at his hair. His right cheek felt the warmth of the sun. It was daytime. Slowly his mind deciphered more sensations. Something heavy lay across his legs. He tried to move them but he didn't have the strength. He heard excited voices droning in and out, and felt hands gently turn him over onto his back. The pain in his chest was excruciating.

Where was he? He tried to open his eyes but his eyelids were too heavy. He tried to reach out, but someone grabbed his hand and forced it back down to his side. Something pricked his arm and he felt what little grasp he had on reality fade away.

Scott stared down at Johnny, so pale, so fragile. They had spent the night in Rockville to rest before heading to San Francisco. Johnny had never seen the likes of San Francisco and Scott looked forward to showing his brother another kind of life, a life he had enjoyed but now found sorely lacking after living at Lancer. But he wanted his little brother to experience everything. Instead, he had not left his side for a moment since Dr. McKenna had emerged from his back room where he performed his surgeries. He had almost lost Johnny twice, but the boy was strong and would not let go easily. Still he was not out of danger, and with a heavy heart Scott instructed a boy he saw walking by the doctor's office to send the telegram that he thought he would never have to send. Johnny hurt badly. Come quickly. Scott.

He collapsed into the chair the doctor had provided, closed his eyes and remembered. He had heard the two shots ring out, saw the rush of onlookers head for the restaurant and followed them, curious. Johnny was still at the restaurant. A pretty young waitress had fallen under the spell of Johnny's boyish grin. He remembered being paralyzed by the sight of Johnny sprawled in the street, blood oozing from beneath his chest, a woman collapsed over his legs.

He reached out and held Johnny's over warm hand in his. He was heavily sedated but occasionally the pain would flare up through the drugs and he would moan softly. He knew Johnny would be furious when he found out that Scott had allowed the doctor to use the morphine. But the doctor had been at the scene before he got there and had already administered the first dose. The first rifle shot had hit Johnny dead center in the chest, precariously close to his heart. The second bullet hit Helen Stern in the head. She was dead before she hit the ground. Scott vowed he would find who did this and kill him with his bare hands.

That was twenty four hours ago. Murdoch sent a wire back saying he and Teresa were on their way. And so he sat and watched and prayed. Dr, McKenna checked on Johnny every thirty minutes, changing the dressing when needed, keeping him doped up with the morphine. "It is the only kind thing to do." The doctor had said at Scott's misgivings. "He will be in excruciating pain. While no vital organs were hit," he explained, trying to give Scott a reason for the drugs that his brother felt were so abhorred, "the bullet did a lot of damage, and I had to cut a lot of tissue and muscle to extract it. If he starts moving around now, he could tear any number of sutures and bleed internally. The morphine is needed, Mr. Lancer, trust me." Scott looked at Dr. Brandon McKenna and trusted him, reluctantly. He had no choice. They were a hundred miles from Lancer, and Johnny lay at death's door.

Dr. McKenna looked up from his examination, his hand lying gently across Johnny's forehead. "He's feverish. Not unexpected. But we will have to keep an eye on it. Meantime," he turned to Scott and arched a critical eyebrow at the young blonde, "you have not eaten or slept in the past twenty four hours. If you want to be of any help to your brother when he comes round you had better get both."

"I'm fine. I don't want to leave Johnny when…"

"He won't be awake for hours, I've seen to that. Now, if you don't want to occupy that bed next to your brother you will go over to the restaurant and get something to eat, Molly will see to it that you don't leave hungry, and then get a couple hours sleep. I promise I will call you if there is any change."

Scott stood up grudgingly, brushing the black fringe of bangs off Johnny's forehead. He looked so childlike as he laid there. He leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Hang in there Johnny, Murdoch and Teresa are on their way. Hang in there.” Not taking his eyes off Johnny he said to the doctor.  "You'll call me if anything…"

"I promise. Now go on."

Scott's order was taken by the same waitress that had come under Johnny's spell. When she served him his steak and potato dinner he gently grabbed her arm and nodded to the empty seat in front of him.

"Is Johnny going to be all right?" she asked, tears welling in her eyes. "He was so nice to me."

"Dr. McKenna says he has a fifty- fifty chance. I know my brother," he smiled, patting her trembling hand, "and he never drops below the odds."

She looked back over her shoulder at the counter top and a freshly baked apple pie. "He wanted a second slice of pie but it wasn't done yet. If I had put it in the oven just a few minutes earlier…"

"Don't go there." Scott warned. "Whoever was out there would have waited for Johnny to eat one or three slices of pie. Now, tell me exactly what happened."

Molly took a deep breath and let it out slowly as if it would release the demons of guilt. "He finished lunch and said he had to meet you at the hotel, that you were moving out today. He was so excited about seeing San Francisco for the first time. He closed the door and I heard the shots. I couldn't believe it when I saw him and Helen Stern laying…"

"You knew the woman?" he asked gently.

"Everyone did. She was part time librarian and school teacher when Mr. Gibbs was under the weather, if you know what I mean. I can't believe she's gone. A two year old and all. I mean, Mr. Stern is gonna have a terrible time raising a little girl by himself."

"I'm sorry." Scott said, his emotional energy spent. "I’ve got to get some rest before Johnny wakes up."

"You let me know if you need anything. That brother of yours is real special."

"I know," Scott said as he exited the restaurant, "I know."

Scott didn't rest long, only three hours, but it was enough to drive the overwhelming fatigue from his body. When he returned to the doctor's office he found McKenna hovered over Johnny and his heart sank.

"It's ok," McKenna smiled as he looked behind him and saw Scott watching in abject fear. "I just skipped the last injection of morphine and I think he's about ready to come to. Come," he gestured

Scott moved closer to the bed, "I think a friendly face is just what this young man needs right now."

Scott took his place next to the bed and watched Johnny's right hand twitch, then his eyelids fluttered. He was crawling his way up through the drug and the assault on his body toward consciousness.

"Hey, Brother," he said softly, stroking his forehead gently as he pushed the black fringe of hair from his eyes, "welcome back. You had us all worried."

"Hey…" Johnny whispered. Scott watched as he tried to focus. "You're safe." he soothed, accepting the cool rag the doctor offered to wipe his brother's fevered brow. "You're in the doctor's office. You're going be fine."

"What…happ…"

"Just relax, Johnny. We'll talk about it later, when you're feeling stronger."

"No…" Johnny grabbed at Scott's sleeve, his hand shaking from the effort. "…tell me…"

Scott looked back toward McKenna who nodded. "You were shot, Johnny. In the chest. But Doc McKenna says you're going be just fine. You just have to rest."

"…Who…" Johnny's voice was barely a whisper.

"We don't know yet." Scott answered truthfully. But he would. If it took him a lifetime to find out, he would. "Now, you try to get some rest."

A sharp pain lanced through Johnny's chest and he arched his back, trying to escape the burning inferno. Scott pushed his shoulders back down on the mattress, talking softly, trying to sooth the pain. McKenna was beside him with the syringe. He saw Johnny's eyes widen, he had seen it too. But he did nothing to stop the doctor, it was what his brother needed right now. Later, when he was stronger they would discuss this, but for now he only wanted to see Johnny rest in painless sleep.

The doctor sighed heavily as he cut away the bandage around Johnny's chest, tinged with fresh blood. "I don't want another incident like that," he growled, "he stays under the morphine."

Scott nodded and sat back down in his chair. It would be two more days at least before Murdoch and Teresa would arrive, and he knew his father would demand answers. Who and why? He wanted those answers himself.

McKenna turned to him, after he had redressed Johnny's chest and covered him with a sheet, "You are not doing yourself or your brother any good just sitting here. Sheriff Hawkins may be able to shed some light on what happened here. At least it will get you from underfoot."

Scott began to protest, but to no avail. The doctor was adamant, and Scott had planned on calling on the sheriff sometime today anyway.

"Alright. But if he wakes up or…" he left the sentence hanging.

McKenna gently patted him on the shoulder, "Don't worry, Son, it looks like your brother has seen his fair share of scraps in the past and survived. He's going to be ok again."

Scott nodded, grateful for the doctor's sincere concern. He leaned over Johnny and gently brushed his hair back from his forehead again. "Sleep tight, Brother."

***

Sheriff Hawkins had little to offer Scott that he didn't already know. But they did agree on one thing, it was not a random shooting. The shooter had laid in wait, across the street on the roof of the Mercantile and waited for Johnny to emerge from the restaurant. Scott's stomach tightened at the thought that Johnny Madrid's past had once again raised its ugly, dangerous head. When would Johnny be allowed to live free? The horrible answer was, probably never. The specter of Johnny Madrid, gunslinger, would always be there.

Scott roamed the streets of Rockville for the next two days. He would sit for short periods of time watching his brother sleep. Johnny's fever had risen dangerously high the first night and he and Dr. McKenna had stood vigil over him throughout the night cooling him down with wet compresses. Now his fever was low enough that his body wasn't racked with chills. McKenna had promised him that he would wean Johnny off the morphine as soon as Murdoch arrived. He couldn't wait. He was becoming more and more irritable simply watching his brother lay motionless beneath the sheets. He needed to see Johnny's eyes open and hear him talk.
 

***

 

The stagecoach from Morro Coyo arrived late in the afternoon on the third day. Scott let out a sigh of relief as he saw Murdoch and Teresa looking anxiously through the windows. "How is Johnny?" Murdoch demanded, before he was completely out of the coach.

 

"He's holding his own," Scott said. "Doc says another twenty four hours and he'll be out of danger. It was close, Sir, to close."

"Can we see him?" Teresa asked as she too emerged from the coach.

Scott nodded, "The doctor's office is down this way. Dr. McKenna's been waiting for you to arrive before he reduces the morphine."

"Morphine…" Murdoch grabbed Scott's arm yanking him back, "You know how Johnny feels about any kind of pain killer."

"I'm fully aware of that," Scott snapped, pulling his arm free, "but under the circumstances it was either the drug or Johnny's life. I chose Johnny’s life. We can all help him deal with the morphine later. Now, do you want to see Johnny or not?"

Murdoch nodded, taken aback by his son's angry outburst. Few things rattled the calm and collected Scott Lancer. Fear suddenly gripped Murdoch's gut and they silently followed Scott's lead down the street to the doctor's office.

Murdoch was not sure what he expected to see when he finally reached Johnny. A dozen scenarios presented themselves as they slowly made their way to Rockville. But he was not prepared for the pale, motionless figure he saw lying beneath the sheets in Dr. McKenna's back room. Johnny's pallor was as white as the sheet that covered his chest. His breathing seemed easy but that would change with the rebirth of the pain once the medication was lessened.

"He sustained a great deal of internal trauma." Dr. McKenna explained to Murdoch and Teresa. "With the help of the morphine we have been able to keep him still allowing the healing to begin. It is most important, however, that he remains quiet. He only needs to tear one of those internal incisions to bleed to death, and we would never know it until it was too late. So," he eyed the three seriously, "I am going to reduce the medication slowly. If you can not keep him calm, then I will have no chose but to put him under again."

 All three nodded. "He is due for another injection in…" McKenna looked at the clock on the wall, "thirty minutes. I'll give him half the dose, enough to keep the pain manageable, but allow him to come to."

Murdoch nodded. "We understand doctor. Now Scott," he turned to his oldest son, the worry etched in the deep lines on his face, "tell me exactly how this happened."

"We don't know exactly. He came out of the restaurant and someone bushwhacked him from the roof on the other side of the street. A woman was hit also. She was dead before she hit the ground."

Teresa gently stroked Johnny's cheek, feeling the heat from the fever. He looked so child like, so peaceful. "Does he know about the woman?" she asked.

"Not yet." Scott answered. "He was only consciousness for a couple of minutes."

"What's troubling you child?" Murdoch asked, seeing the concern on her face, concern that went beyond just Johnny's health.

"Johnny's going to blame himself for her death. I know he is."

"How could he? That's absurd." Murdoch snapped. "It wasn't his fault that she got in the way of a bullet intended for him."

"She's right, Murdoch," Scott said, "that's exactly how Johnny will react."

"Then you must keep that information from him until he is strong enough to handle it." McKenna ordered. He checked the clock and moved toward the bed, "Now if you don't mind I'd like to check my patient before the medication wears off too much. If you would like to wait outside."

"That won't be necessary Doctor," Murdoch said. "We'll stay."

The doctor glanced toward Teresa, "It won't be a pleasant sight," he warned.

"Bullet wounds seldom are Dr, McKenna, but Teresa has nursed more than her share of injured men, Johnny being one of her more frequent patients. We will stay."

"Very well." McKenna began to cut away the bandage and carefully lifted the pads that covered the seeping wound. Murdoch had seen far too many gunshot wounds in his time, but somehow seeing the wickedly inflamed incision on his son's chest nearly made him gasp. The bullet had come so very close to his heart, to snuffing out the life of his son. He nearly jumped when he heard the first low moan of pain from Johnny as the medication began to ware off. Quickly McKenna began to redress the wound surprised when Teresa reached down and held the fresh pads in place as he wrapped the bandaging tightly around the boys chest. "Thank you." McKenna smiled, truly surprised, "It appears that your family is in capable hands."

Teresa blushed then was alarmed by the sudden deep moan of pain from Johnny. They watched as he struggled to lift heavy eyelids then waited until his blurry eyes focused.

"You gave us quite a scare, young man," Murdoch scolded gently, taking his son's hand in his.

"Murdoch…?"

"Yes. And Teresa's here too."

Johnny swallowed, his mouth almost too dry to talk. "…Lancer…?"

"No, we're still in Rockville. We thought you'd like some company until you're well enough to head home."

"Hmmm…" Johnny's eyes closed as he drifted for a moment, "…Then let's get going." He raised a trembling hand toward Scott, "…help me up…Boston."

Scott smiled, "I don't think so little brother. Give it a few days."

"…Can't…Promised Murdoch I'd finish the fence on the…"

Murdoch gave McKenna a worried look before bending down over Johnny. "Don't worry about the fence, it'll keep. You just work on getting better."

"…No…can't stay." Johnny began thrashing his head back and fort, digging his hands into the covers.  "…Shot…someone…gun…where's my gun…?” He tried to struggle up but three pairs of hands pushed him gently back down.

"Lay still, Johnny," Murdoch ordered. "You have to lie still."

McKenna hurriedly filled a syringe but Johnny saw him and grabbed at his arm, "No."

"Johnny, it has to be done."

"No. Please…" He searched the faces leaning over him desperately looking for Scott. "Scott…tell them….No…"

"I'm sorry, Johnny, it has to be this way." He gently pushed Johnny's arm down on the mattress and McKenna injected the morphine. Johnny's eyes slid closed and his body stilled. Scott stood up, emotionally drained. Teresa reached for Murdoch, her hands trembling.

"Will he be all right?" Murdoch asked, his voice catching in his throat.

"Yes, I think so. But there will be no repeat of this episode."

"I understand." Murdoch took a deep breath, realizing his hands were shaking. "But Johnny was right. He is too vulnerable here without a gun. Either I or Scott will be with him at all times, in case some one is still looking for Johnny Madrid."

"Who?"

"It's a long story, doctor," Murdoch answered. "And I’m afraid we will have more than enough time to tell it. But for now, Scott, you stay here while Teresa and I get settled at the hotel. Then I want to have a talk with the sheriff. I want answers, and I want them now."

McKenna watched Murdoch usher Teresa out the door and knew he had met a man that would get the answers he wanted, no matter what.
 

*

Chapter Two

Murdoch stood in the Sheriff's office, berating himself for coming on so strong, but it was Johnny laying over there in the doctor's office more dead than alive, and he wanted answers.

"You listen here, Mr. Lancer, you may be big around Morro Coyo, but you're just another saddle bum passing through Rockville as far as I'm concerned. So pushing your weight around here will do you no good."

"My son is over at the doctor's office fighting for his life. I want to know who put a bullet in him!" Murdoch roared.

"And I got a husband who's burying his wife this afternoon. An innocent woman who's only crime was walking behind your son when the bullets started flying."

"If you're trying to say something sheriff, spit it out!"

Sheriff Hawkins slowly pulled a telegram from his desk, "I wired Morro Coyo right after the shooting. I don't like strangers using my town as target practice. I got this answer; Johnny Lancer, formerly Johnny Madrid, gunfighter. I've heard of him, never thought I'd see the likes of him in these parts though. So you tell me who I should grieve for more? That poor woman and her husband who has to raise a kid on his own now, or your son?"

"I'm not asking you to grieve for Johnny, only help me find who shot him."

"You're wasting your time. Whoever did it is long gone. Probably thinks he got the job done by the way your boy looked out there on the street."

"And if he decides to come back to finish the job?" Murdoch blared.

"What do you want me to do, Mr. Lancer? Take the only deputy I have and have him guard your son?"

"We'll take care of Johnny," Murdoch promised, "I just want to know that you are still doing your job and looking for the bushwhacker."

The sheriff stood up slowly, his anger in check, for the moment, "I will do my job, Mr. Lancer. And as soon as that boy of yours if fit to travel I want him out of my town."

"Don't worry, sheriff, we won't stay here a minute longer than we have to. If you find anything new I'll be at the doctor's office."

"How is the boy…?" The sheriff asked, his bravado suddenly gone.

"Holding on."

***

Scott felt uncomfortable in the small room. The smells of sickness and medicine reminded him of the hospital tents in the war. He looked around the room, noting the lack of so many medical instruments that were commonplace in Boston. How anyone survived a serious trauma or illness was a miracle. He looked down at Johnny laying on one of the
two beds in the clinic and prayed that Dr. McKenna had enough here to save his brother.

He reached down and held the over-warm hand, felt the calluses that had not been there when he had first grudgingly shaken the gunslinger's hand. How much had changed in two short years. Before then, he didn't know he had a half brother, especially one that was a famous gun for hire. Or a father who truly cared for both of them, an emotion the old man often had a hard time showing. He often wondered how different things would have been if they had met under different circumstances.

When Johnny Madrid first arrived at Lancer he was tough, unyielding and trusted no one. He made no qualms about why he had accepted Murdoch Lancer's invitation to the ranch; he wanted the thousand dollars his estranged father was willing to give him for just showing up. At first, he was sure his half brother would take the money and walk away, in fact he hoped he would. But when Day Pardee pushed too hard, Johnny fought back. They became a family fighting a common enemy, even though Johnny insisted on doing it his way, almost getting himself killed.

And now Johnny was an integral part of his life. At times it seemed that they had never been separated, had not grown up in totally different lifestyles. They had a common bond, born of love and respect.

"Johnny," he said softly, "you've got to hang on brother, because I don't know how I could make it without you."

"He's a fighter," McKenna said from the doorway. "He's not leaving this life without putting up one hell of a fight.”

"He's been through so much."

"And he's survived it all." McKenna lay a gentle hand on Scott's shoulder, "Son, you don't doctor a town for more'n thirty years without learning to read people. I know what kind of man Johnny is just by the people who love and care about him. That he gives every bit as much as he receives."

"You don't know how right you are."

McKenna nodded, "Well," he cleared his throat, finding it hard to get past the moment, "your father is out in the office and he's boiling mad. You go ahead, I'll see to your brother."

Scott found Murdoch pacing the office floor. "Any luck with the Sheriff?"

Murdoch turned on him, "The man is an incompetent, ignorant …" He ran his hand through his hair, his face mirroring his anger and his worry. "He knows about Johnny Madrid. He figures that Johnny was bushwhacked by someone wanting to get even with an ex-gunfighter and the shooter left town."

"That may well be," Scott conceded, "but it doesn't change the fact that someone tried to kill him in cold blood, and that another person was killed."

"Yes. A young woman… a wife and a mother. It's all so senseless." Murdoch sat down heavily into the doctor's chair, "When will Johnny's past ever leave him in peace?"

"I don't know, sir. Maybe never. But no matter what happens, we'll always be at his side to help."

Murdoch nodded. "Any change?"

"Doc says he's healing well. He plans on cutting the morphine in half tomorrow. He says he can't stop it completely, it would be to rough on his system, and the pain would be too much. But we should be able to talk to him soon. Maybe he knows something."

Once again Murdoch, Scott and Teresa stood around the bed and watched Johnny crawl his way up through the drug. Disoriented at first, he tried to focus on the faces that hovered over him until he saw Scott's face and recognition filled his eyes.

"Hey, Brother, how are you feeling?" Scott smiled

"Like I was kicked by a Brahma bull," Johnny said, his voice thick and slurred.

"Aptly put." Dr. McKenna smiled down at his patient. "And you're most likely going to feel that way for a few more days."

"When can I go home?"

Murdoch leaned over and brushed the bangs off Johnny's forehead, "Don't push it, Son. You have some healing to do first. Do you remember what happened?"

"I…ah…pie, the pie wasn't ready."

Teresa looked down at Johnny alarmed, but Scott chuckled, "Molly's awfully sorry she didn't put the pie in the oven just a bit earlier."

Johnny shivered and hissed as pain grabbed at his chest.

"That's enough for now," McKenna cautioned. "Later on you can talk again. Young man." He leaned over Johnny pulling the covers over his shoulders. "I want you to get as much sleep as you can get. That is the best way to heal and you'll be on your way home before you know it."

Johnny was feeling stronger each day. Doctor McKenna promised he would release him in another two days if he continued the good progress, but not to go home, not yet. The trip would be too rough on his injury. Another week at least. McKenna had arranged for them to stay in a house just outside town that was vacant while the owners were on a trip. Teresa had gone with Murdoch and Scott to prepare the house and stock it with any stores they needed.

He carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed and waited until the room stopped spinning before he pushed himself off the bed and staggered like a drunken man to the door leading to the outside office. Dressed only in a nightshirt he peaked into the office to see if the doctor was alone, then took as deep a breath as his throbbing chest would allow and carefully walked, barefooted, up to McKenna's desk and sat down in a visitor's chair.

McKenna looked up, miffed, "I didn't tell you you could get out of be yet, did I? Especially without help. You're lucky you didn't fall on your fool face."

Johnny smiled for the first time in too many days, "That's me, a born fool."

McKenna put his pencil down and sat back in his chair to study the young man that sat before him. "You were pretty sick there for awhile, you know that don't you?"

"Figured as much with all the long faces."

"And you've still got a lot of recovery time left."

Johnny nodded.

"Then you know that getting out of bed like that, alone, was a blame fool idea."

Johnny smiled again and McKenna couldn't help but laugh. "You know, I haven't quite figured you out yet. On one hand, I see a man with a quick smile and an easy manner who could melt the ice off a frozen pond with his smile. Then I see that very same man with more scars than I've seen on a man four times your age. You must not have had an easy life, but you come from a well-to-do home with a father and brother who love you without question. Who are you Johnny Lancer?"

"I'll tell you if you tell me," Johnny offered. He was beginning to feel cold and sweaty, but he wanted, no, he needed, answers.

"Tell you what?"

"About Helen Stern."

McKenna caught his breath, "Why, son? It won't bring her back."

"I know," Johnny mumbled.

"And you weren't responsible. It was just pure bad luck."

Johnny nodded.

"Then why do you continue to punish yourself for something that you had no control over?"

Johnny ignored the question. "Helen Stern."

"It was an accident, Johnny," McKenna insisted gently.

"I know that. Tell me about her…please."

"I'm not quite sure what you want to know."

"Who she was?" Johnny looked down at his hands resting in his lap. Who had he met, who had he killed in a gunfight that drove the bushwhacker to try to kill him? The pain in his chest from the bullet wound was mild compared to the pain he felt in his heart for the innocent woman that had lost her life because of him. He had to know about her. Who she was, what she was like. He didn't want her to be just a name in an obituary column. "Please, I need to know."

McKenna studied Johnny, saw the sheen of sweat on his face and his pallor increasing. But the boy seemed to be in so much need. Why it was important to him, perhaps only he knew. The question was, would all the facts help or hurt his recovery. He remembered Teresa's warning about the guilt he would feel. But to deprive him of the knowledge he so desperately wanted could be just as bad. "She was twenty-three."

"I know all that. Tell me about her."

"I'm not quite sure what you want to know, Johnny."

"Who was she? What was she like? Did she laugh all the time, or was she serious? Did she like the wind in her hair or did she keep it tied up beneath a bonnet? I want to know her."

"You are only hurting yourself, Johnny."

Johnny looked up at him, the pleading look in his eyes so desperate. "Why did she have to be in front of that restaurant?"

"Just coincidence."

Suddenly the door burst open. A tall man stood in the doorway, his frame nearly filling the opening. A look of pure rage frozen on his face. "You," he seethed, "you killed her!"

"Russell!" McKenna tried to step between Johnny and Russell Stern, but the big man pushed him aside as he if were a child.

Johnny tried to stand up, but his legs didn't have the strength. Stern was on top of him in three steps. Johnny tried to fend him off but his weak arms were easily brushed aside and Stern grabbed him by the nightshirt pulling him to his feet. "You murdered her!" he screamed, shaking the injured man, "You murdered both of them, you filthy gunslinger. She was carrying our baby. Why did you come to town?" He shook Johnny violently, "Why?!"

McKenna tried to pull him off but he was lost in a fit of rage. "Russell, stop it. Russell!"

Johnny was lost in a nightmare of pain and disbelief. The woman was pregnant. "I'm sorry…" he whispered.

"You're what?!" Stern released Johnny's right shoulder and punched him in the stomach will all his strength. "Sorry doesn't come close to making it all right."

Johnny's world exploded and he crumpled against Stern, blood spreading across his nightshirt. Stern raised his fist to strike again and his hand was snatched from behind.

Murdoch gasped when he saw Johnny receive the blow. If not for Scott and the Sheriff at his side he would have pummeled the man to death. Scott caught Johnny as Stern let him go and hoisted him into his arms carrying him back to bed.

"I want this man arrested," Murdoch raged, "he nearly killed my son."

"And your son killed my wife and unborn baby!" Stern spat back.

Murdoch looked at the man helplessly, "It was not his fault that she was walking behind him."

"Mark my words, Lancer." Stern vowed as the sheriff ushered him out of the office. "Johnny Madrid will pay for my wife's death. And if anyone gets in my way, they'll die too."

Scott gently laid Johnny on the bed, appalled at the widening swatch of blood on his brother's nightshirt. He found a pair of scissors on the table next to the bed and cut away the gown. Blood ran freely from the incision.

"Doc, get in here!" he yelled. "It's going to be all right Johnny."

He found a pile of bandages on the table and pressed them against the flow of blood. "It's going to be all right, little brother."

"She was pregnant," Johnny moaned, trying to push Scott's hands away.

"What? McKenna, get in here!"

"She was going to have a baby…" Johnny felt all his strength drain out of his body as if someone had pulled the plug. He sank back into the mattress and let the encroaching blackness take over…Two lives taken by one bullet. He wasn't strong enough to fight this anymore. He didn't want to feel this kind of pain. He felt incredibly tired. He heard Scott call his name distantly through the ringing in his ears but he didn't care.

*

Chapter Three
 

Scott sat in the corner of the restaurant and picked at his plate of steak and potatoes. He wasn't hungry, the events of the day had killed his appetite, but he found it almost impossible to spend even one more minute in the claustrophobic clinic.

Dr. McKenna had to reopen Johnny's incision to re-suture the ripped stitches. It had been a grueling ordeal, and if not for Teresa's capable assistance the outcome could have been much different. The revelation that Helen Stern was pregnant was a shock to all the Lancers. The guilt that Johnny had felt over her death would now be tripled. He wondered if his brother would be able to overcome it.

It was all so tragic, so senseless. The bullet meant for Johnny had killed two people and possibly destroyed another... his brother. He played it through his mind again, as he had over and over since he came running back to the restaurant. The sight of Johnny sprawled on the ground, Helen Stern slumped across his legs… something was nagging at the back of his mind. Something didn't add up, but for the life of him he couldn't figure out what it was.

He heard snippets of conversations from the tables around him. The only thing anyone could talk about was the shooting. "Such a horrible thing. Poor Helen…You know, trouble always follows a man like Johnny Madrid…Someone had better get him out of town before more trouble follows…a murdering gunslinger…Poor Russell, how will he ever raise Amy?...Should strike him down like the rattlesnake he is…Heard tell Russell nearly killed him this afternoon, too bad he didn't finish the job…" Scott couldn't take anymore. He stood up slowly, feeling every eye on him.

"What's it like having a murderer for a brother, Lancer?" One voice called out. "Seems to me that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree…you a murderer too, boy?"

Scott ignored them, finding the outer most aisle around the tables to exit the room, but three men slowly sauntered up to the front door and stood waiting. "Someone asked you a question, boy. You like your gunslinger brother?"

"I will not dignify that question with an answer. Now, please stand aside."

The taller of the three men, dressed in a sheepskin coat shot his hand out in front of Scott, blocking his way, "You gonna make me, Mr. Lancer?"

Scott's temper was raw from the beginning and this was just a little more than he could handle at the moment. Spurred on by the week of watching Johnny cling to life and the goading of the three men, Scott barreled into them, fists hitting their mark and one by one the three men lay sprawled on top of each other. That was it! Scott thought a moment before his head exploded and he fell forward adding to the pile.

Scott sat on the edge of the cell bunk holding his throbbing head. "I'm sorry Murdoch, but they just pushed me a little too far."

Murdoch stood on the other side of the bars and watched his son pressing his fingers to his temples trying to will away the headache. "To tell you the truth," Murdoch nodded in
understanding, "I'm surprised it didn't happen before this."

Murdoch looked over his shoulder to see if the sheriff was watching. "We're going to have to get Johnny out of this town as soon as possible. I smell a mob brewing."

"I agree. But, can he be moved yet?"

"We may not have a choice. Once the men are stirred up enough nothing will stop them. No, we've got to get Johnny out as soon as possible."

Scott nodded, regretting the movement. "How is Johnny?"

"Doc says he stopped the bleeding all right, but now Johnny's back at the beginning. He has to heal all over again. But we don't have the luxury of waiting for him to regain his strength this time."

"Murdoch, something's been bothering me about the shooting." Scott stood up and wrapped his hands around the cell bars, leaning his forehead against the cold steel.

Murdoch waited for Scott to put his thoughts together. "When I found Johnny he was sprawled face down in the street with Mrs. Stern on top of his legs."

"Yes. We all know that."

"Think about it Murdoch. Johnny would have had to be hit first, then Mrs. Stern, right?"

Murdoch nodded. "The shooter used a long range rifle, probably with a scope. He hit Johnny almost dead on, I figure Johnny made the slightest movement just before the bullet hit or it would have hit his heart."

"We know the damage the bullet did, Johnny began to bleed out immediately. That means the shooter would have seen the blood and assumed he made a killing."

Murdoch nodded again, but not seeing where Scott was trying to lead him.

"Then why take that second shot?" Scott asked, waiting as Murdoch digested the information. "As far as the shooter was concerned, Johnny was dead."

The revelation nearly made Murdoch's knees collapse. "What…?"

"Murdoch, Helen Stern didn't get in the way of a bullet meant for Johnny…Johnny got in the way of a bullet meant for Helen Stern."

"My God…"

"They couldn't just shoot down an innocent woman, it had to look like an accident. So they take down a man first, any man. Nothing could have been more perfect than Johnny Madrid being the accidental victim. It takes the suspicion off everyone. Johnny Madrid was the target…end of story."

"Who…why…?"

"We'd better find out for Johnny's sake."

"But if you're right and Johnny wasn't the target, then he should be out of danger, except for the lynch mob mentality brewing out there."

"No, I think you're wrong. Don't you see? Now they have to finish the job. Johnny Madrid, if he survives, is too much of a threat. If it ends here and now, all is forgotten. The killer gets away with murder and another gunslinger is six feet under."

"What do you propose we do?"

"At the moment, sir, I don't have a clue," Scott sighed. "I just know we've got to get Johnny to safety."

"All right, I'll talk to McKenna about moving him. Meanwhile you just keep a low profile in here. The Sheriff only plans to keep you overnight to cool you off."

"Murdoch." Scott grabbed his father's arm through the bars, "No Lancer is safe in this town right now. Watch your back, and Teresa’s."

"I know. I've already thought of that." He patted Scott's arm, "You try to get some rest. I'll keep an extra eye out for her. Hopefully by tomorrow we'll have a place to hold up until Johnny is strong enough to make it back home."

"Absolutely out of the question." Dr. McKenna stood firm against Murdoch's demands. "He can't be moved, not yet."

"Listen, we don't have a choice. It's getting ugly out there. I don't know if you've ever seen a lynch mob, but I have. Stable, God-fearing, self righteous men turn into animals with only one thing in mind, murder. We've got maybe twenty-four hours before all hell breaks loose. Find us a place where we can hide Johnny until he's fit to travel."

"The Bender house. You and Teresa already have it set up."

"That's the first place they'd look. No, it has to be someplace where they would never think to look."

"The caves past Riker's Corner." Murdoch and McKenna whirled around to see Sheriff Hawkins standing in the doorway.

"Sheriff…" McKenna glanced toward Murdoch, "we didn't hear you come in."

Hawkins crossed the room to look inside the clinic at Johnny sleeping. Teresa sat on a chair next to the bed her head resting on the mattress, sleeping. "I may not like the likes of Johnny Madrid and his kind, but I won't have a lynching in my town."

"Can you control them Sheriff?" Murdoch asked.

Hawkins shook his head, "No," he said honestly. "People are riled up. The Stern's haven't lived here that long, but Mrs. Stern fit in like she was born here. Everybody loved her. Especially the kids she taught. She was a fine woman. And Russell Stern is out there right now fueling the fire. To be honest, I don't think you've got twenty- four hours. I don't think you've got an hour."

"Sheriff, that's a rough ride up to the caves." McKenna warned.

"That's why no one would think to check there. How soon will you be ready to head out?"

"Now wait a minute, Sheriff. I didn't agree to this, and it's too dark, we'll never find the trail"

"You let me worry about that. What about it Lancer, do we do this now? Won't get a better chance. By daybreak you won't be able to sneak a fly out of this place."

Murdoch looked in at the sleeping form of his son. The decision was his. "How soon can you have him ready?"

"Give me that hour," McKenna snapped.

Hawkins nodded, "You've got it. I'll get the buckboard hitched and bring it around back."

"What about Scott?" Murdoch asked.

"I guess he's had time to cool off. I'll send my deputy on an errand and release the boy."

"Sheriff." Murdoch grabbed Hawkins' arm, "Know this, I will kill any man who tries to hurt my son. Any man."

Hawkins looked up into the steel gray eyes, knowing what Murdoch said was the God's truth. "Never thought you wouldn't."

***

Scott hurried through the dark streets. Tension was in the air, he could feel it. Groups of men huddled in front of the saloon and the mercantile, voices raised in anger. Woman stood in front of the restaurant where Helen Stern was killed. Some cried, others called for justice.

He slipped into the doctor's office. Teresa was rushing furiously packing medical supplies in a carpetbag before they were forced to flee. Inside the clinic McKenna and Murdoch were wrapping Johnny tightly in blankets.

Murdoch saw him walk in, "Scott, help us, Son." He grabbed a litter and placed it on the second bed.

"It doesn't sound good out there."

"I know. It's happening much faster than I expected. Hawkins' got the buckboard out back. Teresa, have you got all the supplies you need?"

Teresa nodded, her face flushed with fear. "Doctor, I only found one vile of morphine."

"That's all that's left. Take the laudanum."

Teresa exchanged looks with Murdoch and Scott. "It can't be helped," Murdoch snapped, "we'll deal with it later."

Gently they lifted Johnny onto the liter and waited for Hawkins to open the back door.

"Blankets." McKenna remembered. "Teresa, find all the blankets you can. It will be cold in the caves.

"Let's go!" Hawkins hissed, pushing the door open for them to carry the litter out. Carefully they slid the litter to the front end of the buckboard, trying not to jostle Johnny. Murdoch noticed a stranger holding the reins.

 "He's a friend, you can trust him,” Hawkins assured him. “I've got to stay here, there's no telling what's gonna happen tonight. It'll take you about an hour to make the caves.  Crawford here, could find it in his sleep."

"Thanks," Murdoch whispered, piling blankets over his son for warmth and to hide him from sight.

Hawkins nodded and disappeared back in the doctor's office. Murdoch looked at his family and McKenna as they hunched low beneath the buckboard's sides. Angry voices rang out from the street, a shot was fired and a cheer went up as they slowly pulled away from the clinic. He could barely make out their faces in the feeble light from the sliver of a moon, but he could feel their fear. He patted Johnny's leg beneath the blankets, "It's gonna be all right, Son," he promised, "it's gonna be all right."

*

 

Chapter Four

It took nearly two hours to traverse the rutted hills leading to the caves just north of Riker's Corner. The driver coaxed and threatened the horses in turn as they snaked their way in the near non existent light. The wagon bucked and swayed over the rocks. Sometimes the wheels spun on the loose shale, or a horse nearly stumbled.

Murdoch knew the moment they pulled off the main trail and started up the hill that the trip was too much for Johnny, his body jarred against the wooden bed. Hastily he ordered everyone to pick up one end of the litter and they hoisted it up. Teresa struggled to lift her end high enough to slide her knees under the frame to support it.

It seemed a lifetime to Scott before the driver finally eased the horses beneath an outcropping of rock and wild grass. The night had turned wickedly cold and he knew he could have seen his breath in the air if there was enough light.

"We go on foot from here." The driver called, jumping down from the seat. "It's not far." He reached inside the wagon and lifted the litter off Teresa's knees letting her scramble out from beneath.

Teresa could barely feel her legs they were so numb from the weight. "Young lady, if you could bring the lanterns we can come back for the rest of the supplies after we have this boy settled in the cave."

The four men carefully carried the litter up the steep hill with its precious cargo. Their feet slipped on the loose shale and Scott nearly went down once before he caught his balance and righted the litter. Murdoch felt the chill creep through his jacket and hoped Johnny was warm enough.

The driver stopped in front of what appeared to be a solid wall covered by scrub grass until, with one hand, he pulled a handful of grass and like a blanket it fell to the ground revealing a large opening into a pitch black cave. "Don't light the lanterns yet," he warned, “let's get far enough back that the light won't show."

A feeling of unbridled fear swept over Scott and he stumbled as he took the first step inside. The pitch blackness closed in around him and for a moment his instinct told him to run, to get out of the cave, no matter what. But a loan moan of pain from Johnny brought him back to reality and he cursed the fear that surged through him at even the thought of being inside a cave.

Murdoch shuffled along the dirt floor and his heart skipped a beat in the blackness at the sound of his youngest. The morphine was wearing off and the moans were coming more often. The thought that he might lose his son like this…He lived daily with the fear that someone from his past would turn up to destroy the new life Johnny had built with him and Scott. He could never have imagined this…felled by a bullet meant to confuse and distract from the real target…a woman.

"Right here," the driver ordered, and they gently laid the litter on the ground. "You can light the lanterns now little lady."

Teresa fumbled for the matches in her pocket, that she had thankfully remembered to bring, and struck the flame fumbling in the dark to find the wick and lighting it, watching the light pool over the four men and Johnny, his eyes wide open in fear and confusion.

"Johnny?" Murdoch dropped to his knee, gently touching his over-hot cheek. "Can you hear me son?"

The blue eyes that looked up at him were glazed and unfocused. Pain registered on his face but he didn't say a word.

"Johnny…?" Scott was on his knees too, carefully pulling the blanket away so McKenna could examine his chest. "We just took a little ride outside of town." He said conversationally. "Thought you might like some fresh air. I know how you like the cold crisp nights, when the sky is so black that the stars look like you could just reach up and grab one of them. Johnny…?"

Johnny moved his lips as if to say something but his eyes slid shut.

"Doc…?" Murdoch whispered, his trembling hand brushing the silken black hair off Johnny's forehead.

"He needs rest and warmth."

"We need to start a fire." Scott looked around the cave and his stomach twisted in fear, but he pushed it back, the need to help his brother was greater than the claustrophobic terror that tried to envelope him.

"There's a natural chimney in the roof, we can burn a fire at night only when the smoke won't be seen. During the day…"

"I understand." Murdoch struggled to his feet, his strength sapped by the physical and emotional rigors of the past few days. "Scott and I will see to the supplies and firewood while Doc and Teresa get Johnny settled. I'm afraid," he said turning to the driver, "that I didn't get your name."

"Didn't give it." Murdoch got his first good look at the man, surprised to see that he was well into his fifties with a mane of white hair that hung half way down his back. "The name's Crawford."

"Well Mr. Crawford, I want to thank…"

"No need for thanks. I don't abide by lynch mobs. I was happy to help. And by the way, it's just Crawford, no Mister in front."

***

 

They built a fire and moved Johnny as close as they could to it. McKenna gave him half the morphine that was left. He had no choice, he explained, with the rigors of the trip the boy had to rest through the night. The flickering light pushed back the darkness in the small corner of the cave. Scott sat next to Johnny, his nerves on edge. He feared for his brother and he feared the cave. He caught Murdoch's eyes on him, studying him. Was it so obvious?

"We'll need more supplies tomorrow." Murdoch looked through what they had been able to get in their hasty retreat, "but I don't think it will be a good idea to buy them in Rockville, draw too much attention."

"It's a hard day’s ride from here to Vallejo," Crawford offered.

Murdoch nodded. "And while you're there," he turned to Scott, offering his son a way out without loosing face, "you can wire Val in Green River and see if he knows anything about Mr. and Mrs. Stern."

"Good idea. And I'll also see if I can pick up a couple horses."

"That's settled then. We had all better get some sleep tonight, it's been a long day." But Murdoch knew as he looked around the faces that stared back at him that no one was going to get any kind of sleep this night.

At the first hint of morning Scott and Crawford took off. Scott felt his own measure of guilt. He had left his brother behind in the cave, albeit well taken care of by Murdoch, Teresa and the doctor, but he should have been there too. Johnny was in so much pain, both physical and mental. He wondered if Johnny would believe them when they explained that the bullet was meant for him only as a decoy. That the real target was Helen Stern. Unfortunately he knew the answer because he knew his brother all too well. Johnny would require proof if he was to believe that. Proof to alleviate the guilt that was more life threatening then the bullet that had tore his flesh and ravaged his body.

Scott sighed heavily and continued to watch the landscape pass by slowly, the dry grass of the valley turning green as they neared Vallejo and the waters of the bay.

"For brothers, you two don't look much alike," Crawford suddenly said, the first words he had spoken since they left the cave five hours ago.

"We're half brothers, different mothers. Does that offend you?"

Crawford pursed his lips and thought, "Should it?"

"No it shouldn't," Scott snapped, not knowing why he let out all his hostility on an innocent man who had done everything to help them.

"You know, I'm no expert on brothers, ain't got any myself, but you two seem closer than most. I seen you watching over him all night last night."

Scott wasn't sure if he liked this stranger prying into his life, but he couldn't fault the man for wondering. They were an unusual pair. "Neither one of us grew up on Lancer. I was raised in Boston. Johnny…he raised himself, down around the border towns. Murdoch brought us together when he needed help defending Lancer from land pirates. After that, we just stayed together."

"I was wondering how Johnny Madrid came to be called Lancer."

"You heard of Johnny Madrid?"

Crawford snorted, "You'd have to be deaf, dumb or blind not to know about Johnny Madrid. Got ta say though, he don't look like what I expected."

Scott laughed ironically, "He's the gentlest man you'd ever want to meet. But…"

"But cross horns with him and you're a dead man." Crawford finished.

"Yeah. Something like that."

They fell back into their own reflective silence. The events of the past few days had turned Scott's world upside down. He truly feared that Johnny would not make it this time.

Three hours later they finally arrived in Vallejo. Scott had never visited the port town before and was impressed by its beauty. Gentle green slopes, moistened nightly by the fog that rolled in off the bay, were dotted by houses overlooking the harbor. The streets were teeming with sailors from the boats docked at the harbor, cowboys, men in business suits. Close enough to San Francisco to share some of it sophistication, it was still rooted in its recent past, with saloons and brothels and a Spanish Mission sitting at the edge of town as if it were watching over the city as it grew.

"I'm gonna wash some of this dust down," Crawford said as he pulled the horses into the livery, "you do what you need to do. Then we'll get them supplies and head back."

Scott nodded. "How's an hour sound?"

"Should be enough time to get into some trouble." Crawford threw Scott the first smile he'd seen on the old weathered face.

Scott slapped him on the back. "Just not too much trouble."

Scott left Crawford with the team and headed for the telegraph office. If he was lucky he would hear back from Val in short time. What the sheriff of Green River could tell them was questionable, but they were pulling at straws now. He sent the wire and instructed the operator that he would be back in forty five minutes to retrieve the answer. Then he headed for the sheriff's office. Larger than any jail he'd seen outside of Boston, he noticed every cell was packed to the brim with sailors and cowboys in different degrees of intoxication.

"Full house." Scott smiled as he closed the door behind him.

The sheriff looked up from behind his desk, "Usually is. Every night is Friday night around here. What can I do for you?"

Scott shrugged.  "Just wondering about the rumors I've been hearing about Rockville. I was planning on stopping through there on my way to the high country."

"You can do yourself a favor, boy, and stay clear of that place for awhile."

"Exactly what's going on there anyway?"

The sheriff studied Scott for a long minute, "Mind my asking why you're so interested?"

Scott proudly blushed on cue. "I'm from Boston, Sheriff. Took the train to San Francisco and thought I'd ride back, see the country, meet the people. I heard a little bit about the trouble there. I thought I would check it out. But if Rockville is as bad as you say."

"Son, its worse. Some gunslinger got himself shot and a poor woman took a bullet meant for him. Seems the town went wild, tried to hang the kid but his family got him out of town. They're still looking for him. The sheriffs doing the best he can, but its nothing but a mob mentality there."

"Poor woman."

"Helen…? Yea, right shame. She was a fine lady."

"You knew her?" Scott tried to hide his surprise.

The sheriff nodded, "She lived here with her husband and baby for a few months before moving on to Rockville. Couldn't say much for the husband, but Helen was fine."

"I heard she was a school teacher and librarian. Makes it all the more heartbreaking."

"Schoolteacher? Helen? Naw. You see there, how stories start to get pushed way out of proportion? Helen a schoolteacher? The only thing Helen taught was how to draw to an inside straight."

"I believe you have me very confused, Sheriff. In Boston, schoolteachers don't teach their students how to gamble."

"Here neither. Helen's husband, Russell, he worked the tables over at the Shanghi Saloon. Helen would come in once a night, in the middle of a big game and plead with her husband to come home to her and their beautiful children. Got the players at the table so flustered, Russell took `em every time."

"And you let it go on?"

"Didn't hurt no one, not really. Anyone sat at one of them poker tables deserved what ever happened to them. And despite everything, Helen was still a fine woman."

"Thank you sheriff, for all your advice. I think I'll heed your warning and stay far away from Rockville." Scott smiled and turned to go but spun on his heel with one last question. "By the way, where did the Sterns come from before they got here?"

The sheriff raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Why you ask that?"

"I'm just trying to learn everything I can about this part of the country. It always intrigues me how people migrate from one town to the other and if they have a plan in mind or if they just happen to settle where their wanderings take them."

"Don't rightly know, Son. I think Helen mentioned Laramie once. I think they've been just about everywhere."

"Very enlightening sheriff. I may have to write a book about my travels. If I do, would you mind if I’ll mentioned your name?"

"My name in a book, huh? Well…" He though about it for a moment, a smile twitching at his lips, "Just as long as you spell my name right."

"You got it sheriff." Scott stepped out of the sheriff's office and his smile faded. Mr. and Mrs. Stern were not who they appeared to be. He headed back to the telegraph office. The answer he received was not what he expected. Scott…Russell Stern wanted for questioning in bank robbery in Laramie…stop…Helen Stern also wanted for questioning…stop…will send help for Johnny if needed…stop…Val

Scott held the wire in his hand. Johnny was in more trouble than anyone could have imagined. Whoever shot Helen Stern would do anything to keep the search going for Johnny. The longer the mob mentality lasted the more likely no one would think to search for the real killer. Who ever that was.

***

 

The next three days were a nightmare. With Scott gone to Vallejo with Crawford, Murdoch and Teresa worked feverishly with McKenna to keep Johnny warm and comfortable. Murdoch knew the price Scott had paid to enter the cave with them and watch over Johnny the first night. The trip to Vallejo was a convenient excuse to get Scott away from the terrors that haunted his memories.

Johnny tossed and turned through the first night, his moans of pain keeping everyone on edge. With just a small amount of morphine left, McKenna decided to hold it back until the time came when Johnny could not stand to be without it. The doctor knew what lay ahead for the boy; in the next few days the pain would be unbearable at times.

He laid another blanket over the shivering man and cursed the situation that brought them here. Johnny needed to be in the warm dry clinic where medical supplies were readily available and the bitter cold night didn't creep into his bones. He looked at Murdoch, his face frozen in grief. He was a formidable man, there was no doubt about the power he
wielded. Yet he was powerless to help his son, and that nearly destroyed him.

With a cry of pain that echoed through the cave, Johnny arched his back up, trying to escape the fire that was eating away at his chest. Murdoch and Teresa held him down, Teresa's face pale and glistening with tears. Reluctantly McKenna injected the last of the morphine into Johnny's arm and he watched the boy's body relax into the drugged sleep.

"That's all of it." He said sadly.

"We have the laudanum," Teresa said.

McKenna nodded. "But it will not keep the pain away like the morphine."

Murdoch gently brushed his hand across his sons fever hot cheek, "He's a strong boy," he said softly. "He won't let go that easy."

Johnny did sleep through the night but with morning came the excruciating pain. With the morphine gone from his system the pain flared. He could barely breathe it hurt so much. He felt someone's hand take his and he held on, squeezing it with all his strength.

Other hands lifted his head and something trickled into his mouth and down his throat. He knew what it was, the vile laudanum he detested and feared so much, but he didn't resist. He couldn't take this kind of pain.

He allowed the medicine to pull him back from the pain, from the hurt in his heart that didn't come from any physical injury…a woman and her child were dead because of him. He wasn't sure if he could live with that kind of guilt. He heard a familiar voice calling to him but he ignored it. He would allow the laudanum to do its job and take away all the pain… if only it could last forever.

***

Scott and Crawford arrived back at the cave mid morning on the third day. Scott hopped off the buckboard eager to tell everyone the startling news he had found about Helen and Russell Stern but at the sight of the grass camouflage hiding the entrance to the cave he froze.

Old fears clutched at his heart and made his hands shake. He couldn't do it. He could not step into the darkness of that cave. He looked at Crawford who stood at the entrance, waiting.

"You go on." Scott ordered. "I'll take care of the team."

"No. I'll do it. That's your brother in there."

"No!" He clenched his jaw, trying to keep the fear from his voice. "Just tell them that we're back and I'll be in shortly."

Crawford shrugged. "What ever you say. I thought you two was closer than that."

Scott was in front of the cave before he knew it, grabbing Crawford by the arm and swinging him around, "Don't you ever suggest that my brother doesn't mean everything to me. Johnny is the most important person in my life."

"Ok, ok. It's just that you're not acting like it. I mean, lets face it, when we left we didn't know if he’d even make it. Hell, you don't even know if he's still alive."

Scott slowly released his grip on Crawford's arm. "Just go in and tell them I will be along shortly." He said as calmly as he could. "Please."

Crawford nodded, disappearing into the darkness.

Scott leaned back against the rocks and closed his eyes, damning himself for his fear. Crawford was right, he didn't know if Johnny was alive or dead. At this point though, he convinced himself, ten minutes one way or the other would not make much difference. With purposeful slowness he began to unhitch the team and settle the two new horses they had bought in Vallejo.

He looked back at the cave entrance, grateful that no one had come out to get him. Murdoch understood, somehow the old man knew the fear that broiled inside his son, and had the wisdom not to push.

Taking in a deep breath and sucking in as much courage as he could muster, Scott stepped into the dark cave.

He wasn't sure how he made it, but up ahead he could see the faint light from lanterns lit to ward off the blackness, and the exhausted forms of Murdoch and McKenna slouched against the cave wall while Teresa sat next to Johnny gently petting his hand, her head bent and her eyes closed. He could see the gentle rise and fall of Johnny's chest. He was still alive.

"Murdoch…?" he whispered. "How's Johnny?"

"Why don't… you ask me…Boston…?" Surprised, everyone scrambled over to Johnny at the same time.

Murdoch ran a gentle hand over Johnny's forehead, "How are you feeling, son?"

"…a…little cold…" Johnny smiled faintly.

Murdoch threw another blanket over his son tucking it in around him as carefully as he could, but still causing a moan of pain from him.

"Sorry Son, we can't light the fire until dark."

Johnny looked around for the first time, not sure of what he was seeing. "Where are we?"

Scott leaned over him, "There was a little trouble in town and we thought it would be safer out here."

Johnny blinked his eyes trying to remember what had happened. The pain in his chest told him he was hurt bad, and the heavy feeling in his limbs told him that he had lost a lot of blood. Something nagged at the back of his mind, warning him that he didn't want to know.

And then it was there, wrapping around him, smothering him. He remembered stepping out of the restaurant, the pain exploding in his chest, then the weight of something heavy on his legs as unseen hands moved him and more pain. The woman, he didn't even know her name…she had died because of him. Her husband, insane with hate, he had every
right to be. "Why didn't he just kill me and have done with it?" he muttered.

The words cut into Scott's heart and his anger grew. "Johnny…" Scott leaned over him cupping his face in his hands, forcing his brother to look up at him, "the bullet wasn't meant for you. It was meant for the woman."

"No…Johnny Madrid…always Johnny Madrid."

"Not this time. I found out things in Vallejo. Things that will prove to you that I'm right. You just got to get strong so we can fight this together."

"…baby…she had…"

"Are you listening to me?" Scott jerked his head once and Johnny yelped in pain. "You've got to listen. They needed a scapegoat, someone they could point a finger at when the woman was killed. You were that scapegoat, nothing else."

Pain, radiating out from his chest griped his entire body and he shook with the agony. He felt the vile liquid in his mouth again and he nearly cried. Did they know what they were doing to him? More blankets were piled on top of him as he began to shiver and his fragile hold on consciousness drifted away as he fell back into the laudanum induced sleep.

The small group in the cave sat back, stunned, the light from the lantern playing across their faces. The guilt that consumed Johnny would kill him just as surly as the bullet would if it were left untended. But how were they going to get through to him?
 

*

Chapter Five

The small group fell into a silent routine.  Gather firewood and prepare for another cold night, make Johnny as comfortable as possible and sit and wait. The waiting was the hardest. Scott spent most of his time outside keeping watch. At night when the fire's glow lit the back of the cave he could bring himself to enter and sit next to Johnny as he slept.  But during the day when only the feeble light of two lanterns barely touched the blackness a few feet beyond them, he couldn't. And it nearly tore him apart. He wanted to be with Johnny twenty-four hours a day, but he couldn't.  He just couldn't.  Crawford disappeared for several hours and returned with two rabbits for dinner.  To the old man's surprise, Teresa took the animals without complaint and made herself a small table out of rocks to clean them for cooking. 

"I think," Scott said as he accepted the hunk of rabbit meat from Teresa, "that one of us should sneak back into town to check things out."

Murdoch shook his head, "You said it yourself, the town according to the sheriff in Vallejo is still in a lynching mood.  I'm not sure they wouldn't gladly substitute one of us for Johnny if they could."

"He's right, Boston."  Johnny smiled weakly at the group.

Scott crawled over to him, "How long have you been playing possum, Brother?"  He grinned

"Long enough. Help me sit up a little, would ya?"

McKenna kneeled down next to him, his old bones protesting in the dank cave, "I'm afraid not yet, Johnny.  I don't want any strain on those stitches.  It took a lot of thread to sew you up."

"Please…" Johnny pleaded, "My back's getting blisters I've been down so long."

McKenna had to laugh, "Your Pa told me you were a handful to take care of."

Johnny searched and found Murdoch's eyes staring at him.  Funny, he couldn't remember anyone ever referring to Murdoch as his Pa.  Why was that?

"Listen to him, Son," Murdoch admonished. "The sooner you get well the sooner we'll be heading back to Lancer."

"Johnny." Teresa was by his side, a tin cup in her hand, "I've made you some broth with the rabbit Mr. Crawford trapped for us. Just a few sips…ok?"

Johnny shook his head, the smell from the cup revolting.

"Johnny, please."

"Tell you what, Johnny," McKenna said, feeling the boy's forehead for fever. "If you drink the broth now and some more in the morning then we'll see about letting you sit up for a bit."

Johnny looked at the offending liquid in the cup and wondered if sitting up was worth it.  He'd been on his back so long now that he forgot what up was.  "Two sips."

"Three." Teresa countered, and gently lifted his head to drink.

The energy it took just to take the few sips left Johnny exhausted and he cursed the weakness that left him shivering.  He knew what he had to do, but his body was letting him down.  He had to get back to that town and set things straight with Russell Stern.  He had to make the man understand how sorry he was for his wife's death.  If he had died, like he was supposed to, instead of her, then none of this would be happening.  Sometimes his good luck was his worst enemy.

The shivering brought on the pain in his chest again and McKenna was hovering over him in the flickering firelight, his old face blurred by the tears of pain that welled up in Johnny's eyes. He suddenly felt himself falling backwards and he moaned, trying to grab on to something. Scott's hands clamped around his tightly, but he couldn't stop the descent. Someone was lifting his legs and propping them up.  Damn it, he didn't want that, he wanted to sit up.  He'd be fine if he could just sit up.  He heard angry voices yelling at him and he wanted to yell back, but there was no breath left in his lungs. He tried to struggle against the blackness in earnest now, it felt empty and cold, it frightened him as it sucked every ounce of energy out of him. Scott's warm hands slipped away and he felt more alone than he had ever felt in his life.  But the fight was useless and he had to let the emptiness take him, where there was no pain, no worries, no guilt.

Scott saw the look on Johnny's face and he froze.  He had seen that look before.

"What's happening!" Murdoch shouted.

"His blood pressure is dropping too fast.  Lift his legs above his heart. Quickly!"

Teresa scrambled down to his feet, her heart beating in her chest so hard she thought it would explode, as Crawford lifted Johnny's legs laying them across her lap. They felt so heavy and lifeless.

"Now what?" Scott demanded.

"We wait." McKenna said softly, his voice echoing eerily in the cave, "And we pray, if you're so inclined to."

The hours passed and no one said anything. They just watched the blankets move up and down, praying the body beneath them would find the strength to fight.

As morning approached McKenna gently pulled the blankets back and felt the warmth return to Johnny's body.  Even his color looked better.  He nodded, his smile was all that was needed. Johnny had won this round. How many more were there before this fight was over?

Scott watched as Murdoch covered the fire with sand to snuff it out for another day.  By the time daybreak arrived, the smoke would be gone, and no one would be wiser that they were there.

But the inactivity was taking its toil on Scott and he had to do something. "I've got to get into that town." He announced.

"Scott we already discussed…"

Scott raised a hand to his father to wait, "I have a plan." He turned to Crawford, "Do you think you could go into town and find me some clothes that will fit?  I’m talking about something that won't make me look out of place."

"Scott…"

"Murdoch, listen to me.  We have to know what's going on down there.  And we have to have some answers for Johnny.  The only one who might recognize me are the ones I had the fight with in the restaurant, the rest of the town only knew me by my clothes.  I promise, I'll get in and get out fast. Just a few questions, see what the climate is. We've got to do this.  We can't hide up here blind."

As much as Murdoch hated the idea, it was a good plan, and it could work.  "All right. But be careful."

Scott nodded. "And," smiling at Crawford, "try to get something that at least has a little fashion."

Crawford laughed as he crawled toward the opening of the cave, "You got it Scott.  You'll be the best dressed man in Rockville."

***

Scott scratched at the louse ridden, sweat stained, brown shirt and woolen pants he wore, cinched at the waist with a length of rope. The hat he wore had a bite sized hole taken out of the brim, Scott could still see the teeth marks. For good measure Murdoch had rubbed a mixture of dirt and ash on his face then had Scott rub it off leaving his skin looking as if he had not had a wash in months.  To think of it, it had been a long time since any of them had had a bath or fresh clothes. It was not exactly what Scott had in mind but Crawford had assured him it was the best he could do, besides, he would have no problem fitting into the saloon dressed like a down on his luck drifter.  He couldn't, of course, have dinner at the fine restaurant, but Sally's was a good place to get a square meal, with enough leftovers to appease the hunger of the cave dwellers he was leaving behind.

***

Scott slowly rode down the center of town.  It looked different than the last time he saw it.  Storefronts were boarded up to cover broken windows, trash lined the streets.  A hangman's noose still hung from a sturdy branch on a tree next to the livery stable. The sight of the rope sent a shiver down Scott's spine.  They had come that close to losing Johnny.

He stopped in front of the saloon and pulled his hat down over his eyes before dismounting.  In theses clothes he was sure even Jelly wouldn't recognize him.

The saloon was the only busy place in the town at one in the afternoon.  Drifters stood at the bar, some slung over it, snoring.  A gambler or two sat at the poker tables, waiting for the next poor sucker to walk in the door, brimming with money and bad luck.

Scott sided up to the bar and ordered a whisky and a beer.  The whisky went down hot and hard and laid in his stomach like a brick on his near empty stomach.  He decided to nurse the beer.

"Looks like you had quite a ruckus here," he said conversationally to the bartender. "That noose get a work out?"

"Naw…not yet."  The bartender swiped at the bar top with a dirty rag. "But, it's just a matter of time."

"Waiting for the judge to get in town?"

The bartender snorted, "The last time we saw a judge around these parts was six months ago. We take care of our own justice around here. You seem awful curious Mister."

Scott laughed, "I've had nothing but my own voice to listen to for more `n eight weeks now.  I just wanna hear another human voice.  You wanna tell me what the weather's like in China I'll listen."

"Ya know the bath house is down the street."

"My next stop after a couple more of these." Scott lifted his beer and saluted the bartender. "So getting back to the hanging, what's this guy done that deserves a noose?"

"A woman was killed.  A woman with child."

Scott whistled. "Any man kills a woman carrying a baby deserves to hang.  How'd he do it?"

"He didn't exactly kill her himself.  Look, you ever hear of Johnny Madrid?"

Scott thought about it long and hard then nodded slowly. "That the gunslinger down around the border?"

"Yep. Same one.  He comes into town and next thing you know someone tries to put a hole through his heart, but instead Helen gets hit. She was a right fine woman.  She came in every night to try to bring her husband home."

"Poor woman, married to a drunk then gets herself killed."

"A drunk?  No way, Mister.  Russell Stern never touched a drink the whole time I knew him.  He's a gambler.  He's sitting right over there in fact." The bartender pointed to the corner table where a well-dressed man sat shuffling cards.

"So why didn't you hang Madrid?"

"Doc snuck him out a town before we could get to him.  But he's bad hurt.  Took a bullet in the chest.  It's just a matter of time `fore we find him. Got men out looking right now. We'll find him, don't you worry, we'll find him and give him the lynching he deserves."

Scott downed the beer and ordered another.  "Ya know," Scott leaned over the bar top to whisper, "I heard the name Russell Stern some place before, just can't remember where."

"Funny you should say that, another feller said the same thing a few days ago.  Seemed mighty interested in the both of them, the Mr. and the Mrs.  Kinda like you."

Scott grinned, "I'm not interested, just curious.  The more I know the more I can think about when I'm alone again on the trail."

"Around here, Mister," the bar tender whispered, "curious can get you killed."

"I'll remember that. Hey, he any good?" Scott nodded toward Stern. "I mean, can he play or is it all show?"

The bartender snorted, "He's good.  Never leaves here a loser. Why?"

"Oh, I don't know. Thought maybe I'd try my luck."  As the words came out of Scott's mouth he knew he meant more than the cards. It was a risk coming face to face with Stern, but he needed more.  And Johnny's life depended in it. "Another beer, and what ever the gentlemen's having."

The bartender slid another beer across the bar to Scott and poured a glass of sarsaparilla for Russell. "Told ya," the bartender chuckled, "he never drinks."

"Thanks."  Scott grabbed the two glasses and slowly approached the table where Stern sat.  "You dealing or just keeping the chair warm?" he asked.

Stern looked up, his eyes cold as ice. He looked Scott up and down and sneered. "The flop house is down the street."

Scott hooked a chair with his foot and sat down placing the beer in front of him and the sarsaparilla in front of Stern. "Can't always judge a book by its cover." Scott said, staring the gambler down.

"Maybe not, but the pot starts at ten bucks."

Scott dug in his pocket and threw a wad of bills on the table. He didn't know at the time why he asked Murdoch for all his cash, he was glad he did now. "Will this do?"

A slow smile spread across Stern's face.  "That'll do.  What they call you Mister?"

"My friends call me Harris."

"And your enemies?"  Stern stared at him, trying to gage him.

"They don't last long enough to even ask." Scott answered with a wicked smile.

"I like you, Harris." Stern said shuffling the cards, "Even though you need a bath."

"The bath comes later."

"You know," Scott said, three hours later and six hundred dollars richer than when he walked in, "It's too bad that bushwhacker wasn't a better aim. I mean, to lose your wife and baby like that."

Stern looked up from his cards, "What's it to you?"

Scott shrugged, "Nothing. Just trying to pay my sympathies."

"I don't need anyone's sympathy.  You gonna play that hand or what?"

Scott nodded and laid down a King high flush.  He reeled in the cash and stuffed it in his hat.

Stern slapped his hand across the hat, "Tell you what Harris…one more hand, winner takes all."

Scott studied the gambler.  Here was a man who could not stand to lose.  No matter what.

"You got that kind of money to back up a wager like that?"

Stern's sneer turned to a smile. "And then some."

Scott slowly pushed the hat to the center of the table.  "Never could turn down a…"

An explosion of noise swung everyone's attention to the swinging doors.  A dozen dust covered cowboys swarmed in, all heading for the bar.

"Sorry Mr. Stern," the leader turned to the table, "no luck today."

Stern slowly stood up, the smile turning to a look of honest gratitude.  "I don't know how to thank all you men for what you have done for me and…and for Helen, God rest her soul.  But I know you'll find him."

A cheer went up around the barroom.

"I know you'll find him and punishment him like he deserves."

Scott watched as Stern took the group into his hands, like a minister at a sermon, "I know no one here could ever stand by while a pretty young woman like my Helen is gunned down because of the likes of Johnny Madrid."

"Right you are Mr. Stern!" came a voice raised to a fever pitch.

"And I know justice will be served.  Johnny Madrid will pay for his sins…all of them.  All the wives and mothers of all his victims will thank you.  But none more than I."

Voices roared with excitement.  The hunt was on.  Scott's stomach surged. Stern was keeping the fire lit.  Johnny didn't have a chance in hell if they got a hold of him.

"We won't stop `till we hang the murdering gunslinger!"

"Here, here!" Stern raised his glass to the crowd. "Bartender, drinks on the house!"

Stern sat back down, his face flushed with excitement.  "You staying around long enough to see the entertainment?" He grinned.

Scott shook his head. "I'll just collect my winnings and be on my way.  I'm not much for hanging parties, even if it's a gunslinger who deserves everything he gets." Trouble was, Scott thought, few things that came Johnny's were ever truly deserved.

"Not so fast." Stern warned with a glint in his eye, "can you beat aces over queens?"

Scott studied his cards and shook his head slowly as he threw them face down on the table. All of Murdoch's money and then some.  But he had gotten what he wanted. "You're good, Mister," he said dumping the money on the table and slipping his hat back on.

Stern nodded, pleased with himself.  "Here," he said, holding out a ten dollar bill as Scott turned to leave, "get yourself that bath and a hot meal."

Scott accepted the money.  "Thanks Mr. Stern.  I won't be forgetting you soon." He promised.

He stepped out of the saloon feeling dirtier inside from having met Stern than the filthy clothes that hung from his body.  Johnny was in a lot of trouble.  Stern was doing his best to keep them in a lynch mob mentality. He couldn't help but think that Stern was behind the shooting.  But what would bring a man to kill his own wife, especially one that carried his child?

He decided before heading back out to the caves that he would check in with the sheriff first. But as he walked toward the jail he noticed a house at the end of the street with a large black flag hanging from a porch post.  Stern's house, no doubt.  Without really thinking, he slipped behind the saloon where fields of tall grass stood just feet from the back wall. Hunched over, and hoping no one saw the grass move as the crawled past the sheriff's office, the bath house and Sally's Café he reached what he hoped was Stern's house.  He watched the house for a long time, the sun beating down on him in the hot grass, but saw no movement and decided to make his move.  He tried the back door but it was locked.  Using his hat to protect his hand he punched at the window next to the door and held his breath as glass shattered to the floor inside. He heard nothing from inside and no one seemed to notice on the street so he quickly snuck inside.

The two-bedroom house was small but well kept. A woman's touch could be seen everywhere and he felt a stab of sadness that a woman had been killed so carelessly.  He wasn't sure what he was looking for, if anything.  He went from room to room, one eye and ear always looking toward the front door. The kitchen was neat and clean.  Several bowls of food sat on the cupboard, brought over by the kind ladies of the town for the grieving widow.  He wondered in passing where the child was. There didn't seem to be any clothing or furnishings you would expect to find if a child was present.  And yet everyone said they did have an eighteen month old daughter. He searched through drawers in the kitchen and bedrooms, not knowing what he was looking for but desperate to find anything. He moved to the small living room and found a roll top desk. Rifling through old receipts, correspondence and a ledger carefully accounting all the winnings Stern had at the poker tables, Scott found a folded newspaper at the bottom of the drawer.  Carefully opening it up he saw a small message in the Personnel’s circled at the bottom of the page. `Drexlier 2000.'  Slipping the newspaper inside his shirt he closed the roll top desk and hurried out the back door.  He passed by the sheriff's office and thought about telling Hawkins what he had just found, what he suspected, but a gun shot from the saloon and a cheer from the growing mob changed his mind. He had to get back to his brother. There was more danger here than any of them suspected.

 

Chapter Six

 

Johnny got his wish late the next day when Crawford hauled a saddle into the cave and helped Murdoch and McKenna gently lift him back against the overturned gullet.

"If you feel dizzy or sick you let us know," McKenna warned, "I don't like you sitting up so soon, but a promise is a promise."

Johnny smirked, as only he could, and Teresa had to force back a tear. Johnny was so sick, and this cave was much to cold and damp for an injured man. She worried about pneumonia or bronchitis. They had nursed him through pneumonia after Pardee's bullet two years ago and had almost lost him then. The thought made her shiver and she felt Murdoch slip a blanket around her shoulders.

"It'll be dark soon and we can start a fire." He promised. Turning his attention to his son he patted him on the leg, "Feeling better Johnny?"

Johnny nodded. "Just needed some of Teresa's good broth," he said, his voice ragged. "Could have used some salt thought."

"Oh, Johnny Lancer." Teresa grinned, the tears spilling out no matter how hard she tried to control them. "You are incorrigible. Next thing, you'll be complaining about the mattress."

Dr. McKenna sat back and marveled at the family he felt so close to now, using their strength and will power to carry on. He was scared, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it. But these people, in the midst of all that was happening had not lost hope, had not faltered in their love and devotion to the boy who was so sick.

"Where's Scott?" Johnny asked, his eyes combing the darkness beyond the lantern light.

"He went into town to check things out. He'll be back soon." Murdoch pulled off the blanket he had around his own shoulders and laid it over Johnny as his son began to shiver again. Soon darkness would return and he could start the fire to stave off the bone numbing cold. He looked around him at the makeshift refuge they had made. Crawford had brought in a supply of wood and kindling for the nights when they could safely start the fire. The extra blankets and supplies Teresa had gathered as they fled the clinic were stacked toward the very back of the cave. Murdoch forced back the anger he felt at having to flee like animals in the night to save his son's life.

"No!" Johnny was suddenly agitated. "It's too dangerous"

"Relax Johnny, or the doc here will have to give you something to make you. I'm serious, Boy, you have to lay still. Now, Scott knows what he's doing. He'll be back soon."

Johnny shook his head, Scott was so naive in so many things. He didn't know what a lynch mob would resort to, to get their man. They were like a pack of wolves, killing their own if they had to in their frenzy to hunt down their prey. "He doesn't know. If they catch him…"

"They won't. Now, you relax, that's an order."

The shout of "Rider coming!" came from Crawford outside the cave.

Johnny instinctively reached for his gun on his hip. "My gun." He demanded.

"Johnny…" Teresa tried to pull his hand away, "you don't need…"

"Give the man his gun," Murdoch ordered. He watched Johnny's hand circle around the gun as if it were a treasured friend, then laid it beside him. He nodded a thanks to Murdoch before the older man disappeared beyond the lantern light.

"It's probably Scott," Teresa said, pouring some water from the canteen into the tin cup and holding it to Johnny's lips. "You need to drink plenty of water. It's the only way to keep the fever down."

She watched him obediently sip at the water, the simple act of drinking making him flinch in pain. She caught McKenna's look and saw him reach for the bottle of Laudanum. She shook her head almost imperceptibly. She knew Johnny needed time.

Murdoch waited beside Crawford, gun drawn, until they saw Scott appear north of the caves.

"Sorry it took so long." Scott dismounted and handed the reigns to Crawford. "I circled around for a couple hours, just to make sure no one was following. How's Johnny?"

"Sitting up and asking for his gun."

"Fever's down?"

"Some. But now comes the hard part, convincing him to stay quite so he doesn't hurt himself more than he is already. You find anything in town?"

Scott nodded. "Town's still in an uproar, and its Stern who's keeping them that way. Murdoch, he's not exactly acting like the grieving husband. You should have seen him when he was giving his thank you speech to the mob that returned empty handed. Don't give up he said, then bought everyone a round of drinks."

"Did you talk to Hawkins?"

"No. I didn't get a chance. But I did find this." He pulled the folded newspaper from his shirt and opened it to the Personals add. "I found this hidden at the bottom of his desk…"

"You broke into his house?" Murdoch asked incredulously.

"It seemed a good idea at the time. And I didn't get caught." He smiled. "Look here." He pointed to the circled add. "Maybe hiring a gun?"

Murdoch arched an eyebrow. "Maybe. But you took a big chance breaking into Stern's house, Scott. What if you were caught…"

"But I wasn't, now was I. And I noticed one other thing. There wasn't one thing there for a baby. I mean not one single thing. Even if he sent the baby off to stay with someone else, there still should have been something, a blanket, a diaper…Something."

"Just what are you trying to say Scott?"

"That there's way more to this than meets the eye." He grabbed the paper from Murdoch's hand. "I think Johnny should know about this…” He turned and his face paled. The black cave entrance loomed in front of him and he took an involuntary step back.

"Scott." Murdoch laid a reassuring hand on Scott's shoulder. "Why don't you get out of those…" he couldn't find the words to describe the flea ridden clothes, "and then relieve Crawford for awhile. It'll be dark soon and we can light the fire."

Scott caught Murdoch's eyes and saw understanding there that he never would have thought he would find from the older man. He knew, somehow he knew, that the fear Scott agonized over was bigger than anything he could surmount. The only one who couldn't understand and couldn't accept was himself.

"I'll tell Johnny you're here."

Scott nodded and slowly headed off to where his clothes were waiting. He damned the war and the fear it had instilled in him.

Johnny watched as Murdoch started the fire and Teresa began warming what food they had. Crawford had caught a couple more rabbits and the smell of the meat cooking over the fire nearly brought up what little water he had been able to take during the day. He was feeling terrible. The pain in his chest radiated down to his stomach and out to the tips of his fingers with each breath, but he would not give into the pain medication. He needed to stay alert, protect them in any way he could if there was trouble. It was because of him his family was in trouble, again. They were forced to hide here in this cold dark cave because of his past, a past that would never leave him alone. He made a decision as he laid there, one he should have made a long time ago. When this was over and he was fit to travel he would go on his separate way. Never again would he put Teresa in jeopardy. She was the sweetest most precious thing he had ever encountered in his life and he would not be the cause of her suffering any more pain. And Murdoch. He was tough as nails, but beneath his thick hide was a caring person. He had seen it when he looked at Scott or Teresa. It had taken the old man a long time to show the same affection toward him, but it was only his instinct that was warning him. If he had only listened a little harder.

Something rustled in the darkness toward the mouth of the cave and Johnny lifted his gun, his hand shaking under its weight.

"Whoa, Brother." Scott grinned, holding his hands up in mock surrender. "It’s only me."

Johnny let the gun fall to his side and tried to suppress a moan as the movement sent a spasm of pain through his chest.

"How are you feeling, huh?" Scott was leaning over him now, feeling his forehead for fever and straightening the blanket that had fallen off his shoulder as he raised the gun.

"Better. I think I can ride by tomorrow." A wary shake of McKenna's head told Scott that was not to be.

"Well, we'll think about that tomorrow." He turned to look back at Teresa as she positioned the rabbit just above the fire. "Teresa, that smells almost good enough to eat." he grinned.

"Thank Mr. Crawford for catching more rabbits. And," she handed Scott a cup of the rabbit broth, "this broth will help Johnny regain his strength."

"How about it Johnny? I see you must have had some this morning cause you're sitting up."

Johnny shook his head.

"Come on. You've got to get something in your stomach. Ok, what kind of dickering is it gonna take for you to drink some of this broth this time, little brother?"

A smile crept across Johnny's face. "Boston, you think I'm that easy?"

"Yes." Scott matched his smile.

"Alright." Johnny closed his eyes, willing his tired mind to stay alert. "Tell me everything you found in town today. Everything."

Scott glanced up at Murdoch who nodded silently. "Let's see then." He gently lifted Johnny's head just a little higher to make it easy for him to sip at the broth. "How about…six good size swallows."

Johnny eyed his brother, "Three now," he said, "three when you tell me everything."

"You got a deal there, Johnny." Johnny took the three sips and then lay back against the saddle, exhausted.

Scott sat back, crossing his legs Indian style, looking between the fire and his brother, never at the thick blackness just beyond them. "Remember when I told you yesterday that the bullet that hit you was just a decoy for the real target?"

Johnny turned his head away, he didn't believe Scott yesterday, he didn't believe him today.

Scott leaned forward, gently pulling Johnny's chin toward him, "It was the truth."

"What kind of man would kill his own wife, the woman who carried his child?" Johnny asked coldly.

"A man who could callously go back to playing poker, just a few days after his wife's death. Johnny, I was as close to him as I am to you right now, and I'm telling you, he's as cold as they come."

"I saw his eyes in the doc's office."

"You saw a good actor. Think about it Johnny, you were hit first, dead center, by all rights you should be dead." Scott saw Johnny take a sharp breath and wince at the pain it caused. "Then why shoot the woman? Because she was the main target."

Johnny shook his head.

"Damn it, Johnny, are you so wrapped up in your own lack of self worth that you think every bad thing has to center around you?"

Johnny's eyes flared as he snapped his head back to look at Scott. "I just know how things are."

McKenna watched Johnny carefully, ready to step in if things got beyond what his weakened condition could handle.

"You do, do you? I found this in Stern's desk." He pulled the newspaper from beneath his shirt. "Down here." He pointed to a circled personal add, the flickering firelight making it impossible for Johnny to read. "It says… Drexlier 2000."

Johnny flinched at the name.

"You know him, Son?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny turned away again.

"Johnny!" There was no mistaking that tone of voice. Murdoch kneeled down beside Scott. "Whether you like it or not, we've all in this together. We're all in danger. Help us Johnny." In a softer voice he added, "It's time you stopped trying to fight all your battles alone."

"Josh Drexlier. We rode together for a time. He's good. Expensive."

"Stern has money. I saw his ledger."

"Drexlier wouldn't shoot a woman."

"Even for two thousand dollars?"

"If someone hired Drexlier…it was meant for me, not an innocent woman."

"Johnny." Scott sighed, "This newspaper is dated four weeks ago. No one knew you would be in Rockville four weeks ago. Not even you."

No. Johnny closed his eyes. It was getting harder to breathe. "Drexlier and I.." his voice was coming in gasps now, "rode together in Ensenada…wanted me to do a job…couldn't…"

"Johnny…" Murdoch looked toward McKenna, concerned.

"Not right…they were good people…caught…he was caught…spent three years in Mexican prison…blames me…blames me…"

Cold…he felt so cold. He wanted this nightmare to end. He felt hands lift him and pull the saddle free of his back and lay him on the hard ground. Something trickled into his mouth, down his throat. He didn't have the energy to fight it. He drifted off, his hand resting securely across his gun.

***

Three more days past and noting changed except Johnny's condition improved steadily. McKenna was more than a bit surprised and suspicious at how quickly the young man's health turned around. While he still had a low-grade fever and the wound looked red and very painful, Johnny insisted it was nothing he couldn't handle and wanted nothing more than to get some fresh air and sunlight.

 McKenna couldn't fault him for that. The cave was dark and damp and even with the fire, everyone's bones ached from the cold.

Johnny found Scott standing guard behind an outcropping of boulders to the east of the cave entrance and sauntered up to him as casually as he could. He didn't want Scott to see the pain in his eyes or the weakness in his limbs. He had a hard time accepting anything but one hundred percent from himself. And being dependent on others, even his family, grated on his nerves.

"Hey Boston, found yourself a nice cozy spot, huh?"

Scott shifted aside so Johnny could share the boulder he was leaning against. "Teresa know you're out here?"

"Teresa's sound asleep along with Murdoch and the doc. Thought it wasn't right that you should be hogging all the sunshine."

"There's plenty of it, help yourself." Scott studied his brother; saw the beads of perspiration on his forehead, the too pale face, and his hands shaking despite his best effort to hide them. "Quite a mess we've gotten ourselves into this time, isn't it Brother?"

"Thanks to Johnny Madrid." Johnny said tersely, his head hung low.

Frustrated, Scott stood up, "I'm not about to argue the point again, Johnny…that bullet…"

Rock dust hit Scott in the face as a bullet ricocheted off the boulder next to him. He dived for cover, hitting the loose shale and slipping before Johnny's leg straddled him. Johnny was still on his feet, his gun shaking in his hand as if it weighed fifty pounds.

"That's just a warning." A voice shouted down from the rocks above. "Now, move out in the open, both of you. Hands where I can see them."

The sound of horses pounding up the hill made it abundantly clear that they didn't have a chance.

"Come on, Madrid. The game's over. You lost. If you don't want the rest of your family hurt you'll show yourself. Now.!"

Johnny looked at Scoot and knew there was no other answer. "Sorry Boston." He said as he bolted into the open before Scott could snag him back.

"I'm here," he yelled. "Let everyone go and I won't give you any trouble."

"You're not making the rules here Madrid. Tell everyone to come out of the cave or we'll seal them in." A man appeared on the ridge, a bundle of dynamite in his hand. "There's more where that came from. Enough to bring down half this mountain."

Johnny nodded and dropped his gun to the ground next to him. "Murdoch, bring Teresa and Doc out. They've got us outnumbered."

He saw shadows moving in the darkness beyond the cave entrance then Murdoch appeared, his arm tightly wrapped around Teresa's trembling shoulders. McKenna followed behind, blinking in the brilliant sunlight.

"Everyone, throw down your weapons." A dozen men spilled out of the hills, guns drawn, their face's flushed with the excitement of the hunt, and the capture. A dozen more sat on impatient horses surrounding the cave.

"We got `em, Mr. Stern." A man grabbed Johnny and roughly spun him around, tying his hands behind his back. Johnny didn't hear a thing, only the loud buzz in his head from the searing pain in his chest as the stitches were pulled taut and his vision blackened.

"Take it easy! He's hurt!" Scott tried to reach his brother and a rifle butt slammed against his shoulder. He went down on one knee, his vision blurring.

"Don't matter none," a voice jeered from the crowd, "Johnny Madrid's got a date with a lynching tree tonight." A roar of cheers went up and Russell Stern slowly turned his back on the scene and trotted away.

Johnny staid on his feet, somehow, despite the agonizing pain. He would not give this hungry pack of cowards the pleasure of seeing him wither on the ground in pain.

Murdoch and McKenna's hands were quickly tied but Teresa was allowed to stay unfettered. She leaned down and helped Scott back to his feet.

"Get `em all in the wagon." Scott recognized the leader as the man who had apologized to Stern for not finding Johnny yesterday. Everyone but Johnny was herded toward the wagon. Murdoch cautioned everyone not to make a move, not yet. Scott was about to climb into the back when a length of robe was dropped at his feet. "Don't forget this one."

Scott's stomach sank. He thought they had forgotten him. With is hands tied tightly behind his back he clambered into the wagon and sat between Murdoch and Teresa. They all watched as Johnny was led toward them, his legs barely able to hold him up. Doc saw a small swatch of red on Johnny's shirt and cringed. What more was this boy going to be forced to endure?

Johnny was unceremoniously dumped in the back of the wagon and only Teresa was free to help him shuffle up toward Murdoch and Scott.

Silently he turned on his side and laid his head on Murdoch's legs. It would be the last time they would be together. He felt a sadness more profound than he had ever felt before. Never had he had so much to lose. In the past, he left no one behind, only those who paid for his gun grieved for him. Now he felt the pain of loss and saw the mirror image in Murdoch and Scott's eyes.

Teresa leaned over him, her tears falling unabated on his face, "You rest for a while," she whispered as she gently stroked his cheek. "You rest."

*

 

Chapter Seven

Night fell before the wagon finally reached Rockville. Johnny hadn't said a word, nor had anyone else. What could be said? The inevitable was about to happen and they were powerless to stop it. Even the men who rode guard beside them, rifles held in ready in case Johnny Madrid tried a bid for freedom, were silent. But escape was not to be. Johnny could only lay motionless as the wagon bucked and lurched over the rutted road leading into town. As he laid there he made peace with himself. He led a life that no one would ever truly know because like most legends there were only half truths and the other truths he kept to himself. To be honest with himself, he marveled at the last two years. After all the pain, the loneliness, he had found a family and shared their lives. He had been a fulfilled man for longer than he ever had a right to wish for. But now they were caught up in this nightmare, because his past tried to claim him once again. And an innocent woman had paid the ultimate price. He felt Teresa's hand gently caress his cheek. His only one real regret, was that that same family that had brought him the first true happiness in his life were about to see it end. Would they ever be able to live with the image of him swinging from a rope?

The procession slowly made the last turn in the road and came upon the main street of Rockville. Torches lined the streets casting elongated shadows of the men and woman waiting silently as the buckboard passed them on its way to the hangman's rope. A circle of torches rimmed the old tree next to the livery; the hanging tree. Johnny struggled to sit up, Teresa's surprising strength helping him.

They came to a stop next to a bare wagon chassis sitting beneath the hanging tree, the noose waiting.

Johnny looked back at Murdoch and their eyes met with understanding.

"Vaya con Dios, mi hijo," Murdoch whispered.

Johnny's eyes fell on Teresa. The grief in her young eyes pained him to his very soul. Tonight would be the end of her innocence.

He saw the tears of disbelief and loss spill down Scott's face. "No!" Scott yelled, jumping to his feet, "This is wrong!" A lone shot rang out in the darkness.

"Scott…" Johnny looked up at him, a sad smile touching the corners of him mouth. "There is nothing you can do, Boston. Teresa and Murdoch will need you. Sit down. Usted está allí fuerza, hermano."

McKenna thought he would never take another breath in his life time. He felt Scott drop down next to him, his shoulder resting against him arm and he felt the young man's body tremble with anguish.

How could this have happened? He knew these people, treated them for their injuries, their illness, from grandparent to parent to child. They were good people. But now as he looked out over the sea of hate he didn't recognize a single one of them.

Russell Stern took his place atop a bale of hay next to the chassis, a torch held high above his head. "Thank you all,” he called. "Justice is at last served." A rumble went through the crowd. "Never again will another man, woman or child stand before the grave of a loved one because of Johnny Madrid." The rumble grew to a roar. "I will never stand beside my beautiful Helen, never hold the child she carried. But I know she is looking down upon us tonight and thanking all of you." The crowd surged closer, torches held high above their heads, the light flickering on their hate filled faces. "It's time he paid for his sins." Stern swept his torch down to point at Johnny. "Hang Madrid!"

The crowd rushed forward in a frenzy of hate and revenge. The wagon's tailgate was ripped off and Johnny was dragged from the wagon bed. Teresa screamed as the buckboard was rocked violently, nearly toppling over. She scrambled to the front of the wagon and frantically tried to untie Murdoch's ropes but she was thrown off balance as the wagon nearly fell on its side. She held on desperately as the wagon teetered on two wheels before it came crashing back down on all fours.

Johnny felt as if he were suffocating in the mass of bodies that surrounded him. The pain in his chest left him helpless to fight. If not for the strong arms of his captors he would have collapsed in a heap on the ground. A discarded door was shoved across the chassis and he was lifted up into the waiting arms of the hangman. The rope was pulled over his head and the noose tightened until his neck pulsed with every labored breath. He didn't know how, but when the hangman released his grip, he found the strength to stand. He promised himself that he would die with dignity, for himself and for his family.

"Are you ready to go to Hell, Madrid?" Stern screamed and held his hand up ready to signal the two men posted at the chassis hitch to roll it free of Johnny's feet.

Suddenly a figure jumped on the hay bale behind Stern pressing a knife to his throat.

"Tell them the truth!" In the flickering torch light Johnny recognized Crawford. "Tell them the truth or so help me God I will slit your throat right here and now."

A hush came over the crowd.

"Tell them. Tell them how you hired Drexlier to kill your own wife."

Not a person moved. The only sound came from the roar of the burning torches.

"Tell them!" Crawford put pressure on the knife until he drew blood.

Murdoch watched, his heart in his throat. He felt Scott shift beside him.

"It wasn't me." Stern cried. "It wasn't me."

"Who then? Who!"

Stern tried to grab for Crawford's arm but received a kick in the back and the blade sank a fraction of an inch deeper.

"Who!"

"No…Don't kill me…please."

"Who hired Drexlier!"

"Helen hired him."

Stunned faces stared up at him. Murdoch's breath caught in his throat. Scott climbed to his feet, desperately looking from the crowd to Johnny. He could see his brother's legs shaking. It would only be a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds before Johnny's burst of energy would finally fade and he would collapse, the rope strangling the life out of him.

"The truth!" Crawford hissed.

"She was dying. She couldn't face what would happen to her in the end so she hired Drexlier to kill her."

"No!" a woman's voice rang out, tinged with hysteria.

"We robbed a bank four years ago. Helen was hit. The bullet lodged in the back of her head. It couldn't be removed. The doctor said it would only be a matter of time before it began to shift. When it did it would eventually kill her, but not before the headaches would be unbearable and…before the end… she would go insane."

"But the baby?" A woman broke free of the crowd, her face contorted in anguish and incredulity. "The baby she carried."

"She made that up to explain her failing health."

"You piece of filth!" Crawford hissed. "Why Johnny?"

Stern looked over the crowd trying to find a sympathetic eye. He only saw disgust and disbelief. "Drexlier said if someone else was hit it would look like she was an innocent by-stander and I wouldn't be questioned. Please, you have to understand. She was so frightened of going insane. I had to do it."

Johnny swayed and caught himself. The rope cinched tighter around his nick. He couldn't make sense out of what he was hearing. The fringes of unconsciousness pressed ever closer.

Teresa hurriedly began to untie Scott. Murdoch struggled to his feet, not taking his eyes off his son. Johnny's strength was gone. "Cut him down!" he yelled.

Eyes glued to Stern suddenly turned to Johnny. In mass the crowd surged toward him when a shot rang out and Stern slumped to the ground at Crawford's feet.

"Drexlier." Johnny gasped wordlessly.

"No one move." Drexlier pointed his gun toward Johnny. "You're a hard man to kill, amigo." He grinned.

Johnny watched Drexlier through a haze as he parted the crowd with his horse, the torch light bathing his face in grotesque shadows.

"I swore you'd pay for those three long years in that filthy Mexican prison."

Johnny felt numb. The front of his shirt was wet and sticky with blood that continued to spread across his chest. He didn't know how he was still standing. "You killed a woman?" he asked, his voice a ragged whisper.

"Easiest money I ever made." Drexlier laughed. "And when I saw you in town Johnny boy…"

Scott couldn't take another second. He leaped from the wagon toward Drexlier. The gunslinger turned and fired. The bullet caught Scoot high in the left shoulder and he slammed into the ground, stunned.

Teresa screamed. Murdoch made ready to jump down to Scott's side when a second shot rang out hissing past his ear. "Don't move." Drexlier warned. "Nobody move. This is between me and Johnny Madrid. Ain't that right, amigo?"

Johnny didn't have the strength to fight anymore. He saw Scott go down and there was nothing left.

Murdoch searched the crowd frantically for someone, anyone to step forward.

"Just another minute…" Drexlier laughed, "And ole Johnny Madrid will be meeting his maker…"

Suddenly the sound of horses galloping down the street and shots fired filled the air. The crowd dropped to the ground. Drexlier spun his horse around to see a dozen men riding toward him. He raised his gun to fire and a bullet caught him in the hand. He cursed as he held his gun hand in pain.

Murdoch stared in amazement as the group of horsemen pulled to a stop, recognizing Val and Cipriano.

"Johnny!" Teresa screamed as she saw Johnny's eyes glaze over and roll back in his head. He was suddenly hanging limply like a rag doll, his neck set at an odd angle as the noosed cut off his air.

Cipriano bolted off the saddle and was on the chassis holding up the limp form of the boy he loved like a son.

Hands reached down to help Scott up but he shoved them away. He didn't want their help now. Murdoch jumped down from the wagon, their eyes meeting before he ran to Johnny's side. McKenna was helped off the wagon and he pushed his way through the pack of strangers he used to call friends.

"He still breaths, Patron" Cipriano said with a strained voice, loosening the noose and pulling it free. Murdoch reached out to take Johnny and the old Segundo gently lowered the boy into his waiting arms. Murdoch nodded and turned back to Scott who had his arm wrapped around Teresa for support. The crowd parted silently as McKenna led Murdoch back toward the clinic. One by one the torches were snuff out as people came to grip with what they had almost done. Someone called out, "Can we do anything to help Mr. Madrid?"

Murdoch turned back to face them before closing the clinic door, contempt on his face. "My boy's name is Lancer, Johnny Lancer. And no, there is nothing you can do, except try to live with yourselves."

***

Three days later Johnny lay staring up at the ceiling of the clinic. He had just begun staying awake for more than five minutes at a time. Long enough to ponder the question; why. He could understand, in a way, why Helen had done what she had. Johnny himself didn't know what he would do with the specter of insanity looming before him. But it didn't explain Russell Stern's actions. Was the thousand dollars Drexlier promised to repay him from his wife's fee enough to turn a town into a frenzied lynch mob? Or was it the feeling of power as he held each and everyone of them in the palm of his hand?

Johnny smiled ironically, it had almost worked. Helen had planned everything perfectly before Drexlier arrived. Sent their eighteen mouth old daughter to live with her sister in Laramie, carried on her life as if she didn't have a care in the world, while all the while…he would never forgive Stern for what he had done, but Helen…he could forgive her.

"Care to talk about it?" Scott's voice broke his reverie and he turned his head to look at Scott sitting on the edge of a second bed in McKenna’s clinic, his arm supported in a sling.

"Not much to say," Johnny answered, his voice heavy with fatigue.

"Oh, I'd say there was a lot to talk about. But for now I will settle on hearing that you no longer blame yourself for Helen Stern's death."

Silence filled the room and Scott wasn't sure if Johnny had not drifted back to sleep when Johnny said softly, "Guilt has been a companion for a long time, Scott."

"Then isn't it about time you parted company?" Scott slid off his bed and sat carefully on Johnny's. "You have a family now. Let us help you."

"Scott's right," Murdoch said from the doorway. "That's what families do...help each other. Now," he whispered, “I'm going to make a concerted effort in that direction and tell you both that McKenna and Teresa just got back and they will both be livid to see you, Scott out of bed, and you Johnny, doing anything but sleeping."

"Thanks, Murdoch." Scott grinned, climbing back into his bed, "We both owe you one."

"And you Johnny?" But Johnny had already slipped back into a deep healing sleep.

"Do you think he will ever get past this?" Scott asked, studying his brother, relieved to see his steady breath after all the pain he had been through.

"I hope so, Son. I hope with time, and the love of his family, he will finally find the happiness he truly deserves.

 

Epilogue

Two long weeks passed before McKenna agreed Johnny was ready to travel. A buckboard was set up with soft mattresses and plenty of blankets. The doctor provided Murdoch with a bottle of Laudanum if the trip became too rough or the boy got to rambunctious for his own good.

The good- bys were sad and heartfelt. McKenna had made new friends in the Lancer's and their extended family, and had lost old ones. Things would never be the same in Rockville. Sometimes things were just too bad to set straight with a simple apology. It would take time to regain trust and friendships.

Johnny walked out of the clinic under his own power, feeling the sun on his face for the fist time in a fortnight. But at the first sight of the wagon he balked.

"What in hell do you call that?" he exploded.

"That's your ride home." Scott grinned, happy he had only suffered a flesh wound at the hands of Drexlier and could mount a horse for the trip back.

"Now wait a minute…I ain't…"

"You listen to me, Johnny Lancer." Murdoch rose to his full height puffing out his chest in his best fatherly pose. "If you want to get home to Lancer it will be in this. And I don't want any complaints. What's more…you will do as you are told, when you are told to do so. Do I make myself clear? That means when Teresa tells you it's time to rest, you rest. If she says its time to eat you eat. Any questions?"

Johnny dropped his head, "No…but…" He peeked a look up at Scott from under the brim of his hat.  "I think Scott here is looking a bit sickly. I don't think he's healed completely from that shoulder wound. Maybe best if he takes it a bit easy too."

"Good try little brother," Scott grinned, "but I got a clean bill of health. That wagon is all yours Johnny."

Johnny muttered under his breath but by the time he was settled on the mattress and Teresa had covered him with a blanket he had to admit he was grateful for the accommodations.

McKenna leaned over the wagon and did the last bit of ministrations on the boy, smiling fondly down at him. "It was a pleasure knowing you Johnny. I just wish it was under better circumstances."

"That invitation to visit Lancer was an honest one." Johnny clamped the old man's hand in his.

"One I'll be sure to take up. Now you listen to Teresa, she's just about the best nurse I've ever had the pleasure of working with."

McKenna climbed back down, his smile fading. "You watch him careful, you hear?" He said to Murdoch. "He's still a very sick boy. By all rights he should still be in bed in my clinic, but I know how important going home is to him…to all of you."

"Thanks Doc. We'll take good care of him."

"I know you will."

As the buckboard slowly headed down the street and out of town, faces haunted with memories of what had almost happened watched the wagon disappear in the dust. Johnny Lancer would live with them for a lifetime. A lifetime of guilt.

 

~end~
2003

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